Criminal justice reform groups hold rally for habitual offender bill

‘Second chance’ legislation would allow some offenders serving life sentences a chance for review

By: - April 19, 2023 1:01 pm
Ronald McKeithen speaks at a podium. A group of people and several trees can be seen behind him.

Ronald McKeithen of Alabama Appleseed speaks at a rally for a bill allowing reviews of sentences under the Habitual Felony Offender Act on April 19, 2023. (Ralph Chapoco/Alabama Reflector)

Criminal justice reform advocates hosted a rally Wednesday at the Alabama State House for a bill to allow some people sentenced under the state’s Habitual Offender Felony Act to have their cases reviewed.

HB 229, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, would limit reviews to offenders who have not caused a physical injury and not necessarily result in release from prison. But supporters called it a ‘second chance’ bill.

“We are hopeful that legislators understand what we are trying to do, and we are hopeful that this bill will pass,” said Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, the organization hosting the event.


The state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, passed in 1977, increases punishments for people convicted of prior felonies, and mandates life in prison for those with three prior convictions classified either as a Class A felony or Class B felony.

The law was revised in 2000 to offer judges more discretion in sentencing people with prior felony convictions. England, speaking to the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, said the bill would address people who were not offered review under prior changes, and could save the state money from caring for elderly inmates.

“There are people within our prison system that are redeemable and deserve an opportunity to become contributing, working Alabamians again,” he said.

Reform advocates hope the bill will offer relief for those serving longer sentences under the law.

The legislation applies to people who are at least 50 years old and have already served 15 years in prison. Only those serving time for crimes who did not physically injure a person would qualify.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission published a report in 2017 stating that rearrests, reconviction and reincarceration are higher for people who are younger. About 4.1% of those who are older than 65 years old are rearrested compared to 39% of people who are between 21 years old and 24 years old.

Alabama Appleseed said about 25% of people incarcerated in Alabama’s prison system are older than 50. A news release from Appleseed states that about 220 people are serving life sentences under the habitual offender act with no physical injuries.

Those eligible will be afforded the opportunity to have their cases reviewed by the sentencing judge or chief judge of the court. The review would include the person’s disciplinary record while in prison; education accomplishments and recidivism data.

Overcrowding in Alabama prisons and the Alabama Department of Corrections’ difficulties recruiting an adequate number of corrections officers  have led to some of the most dangerous conditions within the state’s prison system in the country.

Appleseed’s Re-entry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen, who was originally sentenced to life without parole and served 37 years before Appleseed won his release in December 2020, said Wednesday he was an example of how formerly incarcerated people could build lives outside prison.

“Since being out, I have contributed so much to the community,” he said. “I have held several art classes. I have talked to several universities.”

Former U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus also spoke in favor of the bill, talking of an inmate he met while serving in Congress who got life without parole for stealing a gun.

“You know, we change,” he said. “Most everything he did, he was 19 or 20 … these prisons are horrible places.”

The House Judiciary Committee could vote on the bill next week.

Updated at 2:59 p.m. with comments from Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa. 

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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.